The earth has been present 22,500 times longer than the period humans are said to have existed on it. This fraction of planetary time directly correlates with the temporal significance of one day in the average human lifespan of 67 years.
‘World’ is a compound of the old English ‘wer’ (man) and ‘eld’ (age) – ‘the age of man’. This implies humility and perspective: the world as a stage upon the earth. What is nature? Unsolicited presence, matter occupied merely by its own core instinct for growth, creation necessarily unasked for? Our surprise at being made – the strangeness of it, of having form – might be eased if we were genuinely able to conceive of time in a less parochial manner. Our species emerged as have all other naturally-occurring species as staggered drifts of creation in almost-unlimited time. It is very difficult to conceive of these stretches. Part of the appeal of ocean and wilderness is in the glimpse of atemporal space and what may appear to be silence. But this is only silence of the world, not silence of the earth.
As Copernicus uncentred the world by showing the true revolutions of our solar system contemporary biology, the ‘modern Darwinian synthesis’ arising in the 1970s with a cluster of key texts headed by the soaring work of E.O. Wilson, has similarly uncentred our tacit assumptions of belonging, place, and purpose. It may be instinctive (‘adaptive’) to ascribe agency and meaning to the process of creation, seeing, for example, preordinance and design in the unfurling of matter through evolution, but doing so significantly limits the reaches of our thoughts and sensibility. It is astonishing to consider there is nothing final or intended in the human form, size, scale, that the condition of our existence is as creatures variously weighed down and lifted by accelerated post-functional and decadent cerebral regions, and that the distillation of the bounteous melodrama of our experiences is a self-propelling attenuation or prolonging of matter. Daily acts of casual intimacy and cooperation – bus journeys, streetwalks, the hubbub of a cafe – can become exponentially intensified and mystified when juxtaposed with this kind of reductionism. Such alertness is a positive thing.
Increasingly, bioligists posit the indiscrete nature of any organism, humans included. An organism is vehicular, a precarious balance of competing elements, or genes. In several ways, bio-philosophers are suggesting the difficulty of defining the outline, the limit, the terminus of the organism. Horizontal gene-transfer describes a flooding out of organisms in nature, an aqueous blending of matter crossing even kingdoms of species. The entire genome of the common parasite Wolbachia is found inside that of the fruit-fly. We exchange DNA in conversation. Aspects of our behaviour, the products of our art, become difficult to separate from the definition of the identity of our body, as close to us as our fingernails and hair.
The fundamental notable distinction between humans and other higher primates is the capacity of the brain, organ of reflection. We are the species that reflects, and that is our essential contribution. As James Lovelock has stated, ‘After 4.5 billion years of blindness our planet [has], through our eyes, [seen] itself from space, in all its beauty.’
- This is an edited extract of an essay by Martin MacInnes. Footnotes and references are available. Free State is currently considering submissions and is open to further submissions until February 28th 2011.